By Sharon Sheridan
They were thrilled with their performance. “It was like the best ever,” said Julia Cipriani.
But when Morristown’s Got Talent! Chair Fran Rossoff announced that they had won first prize in Wednesday’s competition, her musical partner Katherine Merwin’s first response was: “There must have been a mistake!”
“I think we’re both in a little bit of shock, but this is incredible,” Katherine said after the awards ceremony, still holding the oversized $1,000 check replica with Julia.
Beating 14 competitors, the soprano-pianist duo won in their third talent-show attempt by performing Roger Quilter’s “Love’s Philosophy,” based on a poem by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The nearly lifelong friends – the 17-year-olds met in kindergarten – first auditioned for the annual talent show as seventh-graders and made the cut but not the winner’s circle in eighth grade.
“We had a lot more experience this time around,” Katherine said. “I kind of knew what to expect.”
Consequently, they were less frightened, she said. During the performance, “we were totally in the moment. We were so happy backstage.”
So were the judges, who said they were impressed by the teens’ choice of a challenging classical work and their flawless and passionate execution.
“I’m a rock guy, but I really felt something from that,” said Morristown native John Ginty, an organist who has toured with Jewel and the Dixie Chicks.
“They’re well beyond their ages,” said Bill Stephney of Randolph, former president of Def Jam Records.
They and the other judges — recording artist and talent scout Denise Marsa of the KeyMedia Group and professional dancer Michael Spencer Philips — agreed on the top three contenders but had to sort out the order of the prizes.
Ultimately, Morristown High School sophomore Jonathan Aloba won the $500 second prize for performing a dance in the hip-hop-inspired style called “popping,” while The Fab Three – featuring siblings Sofia Wawrzyniak, 10, and twins Arthur (A.J.) and Isabella (“Izzy”), 9 – won the $250 third prize for Imelda May’s rockabilly tune “Proud and Humble.”
“Man, it was tough,” said Ginty.
For Marsa, the criteria included: “Would we pay to see these acts?”
The Wawrzyniaks impressed Ginty by singing rockabilly at such a young age. “It took me 30 years before somebody showed me rockabilly.”
The Fab Three found their winning number courtesy of their aunt, a rockabilly singer. “She introduced us to this song, and we really liked it,” Sophia said.
Being siblings, “We’ve been practicing a long, long time,” she said.
Are things always amicable?
“Mostly,” she said.
“Not all the time,” said A.J., but he declined to elaborate. “We’d rather talk about good things.”
The hardest part, Sophia said, was getting up on stage.
Isabella agreed. When they first started rehearsals, “We were really nervous.”
If Jonathan was nervous, he didn’t show it as as he entered the stage wearing sunglasses and a hoodie for his dance.
As a professional dancer watching 15-year-old Jonathan, Philips said, “to see him being able to hold my attention is a lot for a very young person to do. I have a very critical eye.”
The performer managed a very challenging feat, beginning with a fast “popping” dance, then still holding the audience’s attention and drawing it in while dancing a slower part, he said.
Despite the “pop,” Jonathan’s dance exhibited a fluidity of motion. “That’s what I’m going for,” he said.
He didn’t learn his moves from a dance studio, but from the Internet. “I looked up a lot of tutorials. That’s how I kind of taught myself.”
He said he was “pretty surprised” by his win. “There were some really good acts,” he said.
He also wasn’t sure how the judges would react to his style of dance. “I thought they wouldn’t understand it because it’s not the forte of the judges.”
Jonathan anticipated donating part of his winnings to his church. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and his congregation is building a new kingdom hall in Whippany.
The first-prize winners also anticipated giving away some of their cash, Julia to her long-time Guatemalan pen pal, Katherine to Heifer Project, a development agency that provides animals to help people improve their diets and economic circumstances.
Sophia said the siblings hadn’t decided what to do with their prize.
As to celebrating? “Party in the house now!” AJ exclaimed.
The judges saw a lot to celebrate in Morristown’s Got Talent!
“I thought everyone was talented tonight,” Stephney said. “Even the minimum level of talent was pretty high.”
Emcee Robin Fox of Bridgewater, a comic and self-proclaimed real housewife of New Jersey, agreed.
“I was in awe just of their devotion,” she said. “I was just so impressed with seeing the arts celebrated.”
This was the sixth year for the talent show, a fund-raiser for local school programs sponsored by the Morris Educational Foundation.